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How Tim Ferriss created a brand with millions of fans

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Tim FerrissTim Ferriss went from a struggling online entrepreneur to the head of a brand with millions of fans around the world.Sarah Jacobs/Business Insider

  • Tim Ferriss struggled with an online business after college and was unsure of what to do with his life.
  • His 2007 book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” was based on his business and travels and became a surprise bestseller.
  • Over the past 10 years, Ferriss has built a brand that has attracted millions of fans from around the world.

 


Just over 10 years ago, Tim Ferriss felt overworked, restless, and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. Then he took what he learned from his experiences as an entrepreneur and traveler and wrote “The 4-Hour Workweek,” a book whose massive success surprised himself most of all.

Ferriss took the momentum of that book and created a brand around being a “human guinea pig,” seeking out experts in their fields to learn some of their techniques and incorporate them into his own life before passing them on to his audience. He’s now had several bestsellers, including his new book “Tribe of Mentors,” and a podcast that’s surpassed 200 million downloads.

We recently spoke with Ferriss for Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” and he took us through his unlikely journey.


Ferriss was born in 1977 on Long Island. He said that although his parents didn’t have much money, they would always buy books for him, and it’s how he developed a love for learning.

Ferriss was born in 1977 on Long Island. He said that although his parents didn't have much money, they would always buy books for him, and it's how he developed a love for learning.

Courtesy of Tim Ferriss

Ferriss was small for his age as a child, and he said kids would pick on him because of his size. When he was around eight years old, his mom signed him up for wrestling classes, a sport that laid the foundation for his love of experimenting with workouts and diets that he would develop as a teenager.

As a high school sophomore, Ferriss transferred to the elite New Hampshire boarding school, St. Paul’s School, with help from his grandparents and academic scholarships. At age 15, he spent a year as an exchange student in Japan.

Ferriss’ trip to Japan was his first time traveling abroad, and he said it was “a huge formative experience in my life.”

He considers this part of his life to be an awakening to the realization that there was a huge world beyond where he grew up, and it fostered his passion for exploring other cultures.

St. Paul’s led Ferriss to Princeton, where he majored in East Asian studies.

St. Paul's led Ferriss to Princeton, where he majored in East Asian studies.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Ferriss revealed in a 2015 blog post and a 2017 TED Talk that he has dealt with bipolar depression, and that he got to an especially dark point during his senior year of college. He’s since come to see it as one of several turning points in his life.

Ferriss said that he was in a “very, very dark” time as a college senior and even contemplated suicide.

He took a year off, teaching Japanese and working odd jobs in China. When he returned to finish his degree, he was certain that he would not take a traditional Ivy League path into finance.

“I saw my classmates competing, because that’s what they were good at!” he said. “I mean, you take kids who go to a school like Princeton, they’re used to competing, and they are used to being number one, so if something seems coveted, they will compete for it, whether or not they really want that thing.”

After graduating and getting a handle on his thoughts, Ferriss figured he would check out exciting developments in Silicon Valley. He soon started his own company, BrainQuicken.

Ferriss told us he created his own athletic supplement company because it was an area he was obsessed with in his own life. He decided to combine supplements he was already taking while working with college athletes to determine where the biggest demand was.

“BrainQuicken was a real learning on the job MBA,” he said.

One of his Princeton professors would later invite Ferriss to speak to students about what he learned as an entrepreneur. It culminated in a lecture Ferriss cheekily called “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit.”

Ferriss hit another low in 2004 after a friend died, a relationship ended, and his business felt like it hit a dead end no matter how many hours he put in. As before, he decided to travel, this time to his friend’s place in London.

Ferriss hit another low in 2004 after a friend died, a relationship ended, and his business felt like it hit a dead end no matter how many hours he put in. As before, he decided to travel, this time to his friend's place in London.

Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

It was then that Ferriss discovered the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, whose Stoic ideals have since helped him move through low points.

In his 2017 TED Talk, he said that he especially focused on Seneca’s line, “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.

When he took time off, he realized that his business was actually performing better without his micromanaging, and he extended his trip to Spain.

During this sabbatical, Ferriss compiled lessons around efficiency and planning he had learned from both his professional and personal struggles, and these would later form the basis for his 2007 career-defining book, “The 4-Hour Workweek.”

Ferriss knew he could easily have become a one-hit wonder, and so he decided he would put some of the money he was making into tech startups. He befriended the venture capitalist Mike Maples, who helped lead him to hugely successful investments in companies like Uber, Facebook, and Twitter.

Ferriss was an adept student and had a very successful run as an early stage investor and adviser, but he decided in 2015 to refrain from making more investments so that he could focus on his own businesses.

To avoid becoming pigeonholed as a career expert, Ferriss decided that his next projects would explore other passions. His next book was 2010’s “The 4-Hour Body,” which also became a number-one New York Times bestseller.

This book helped establish Ferriss as a “human guinea pig” and began a pattern he would continue to apply to other fields.

He would talk to experts to create a weight loss diet, for example, and then try it himself, sharing his results along the way. He would encourage his readers to share their stories as well, and to offer suggestions for improvements if they noticed any.

Next was his take on cooking, with 2012’s “The 4-Hour Chef.” His decision to publish the book through Amazon prompted several brick-and-mortar booksellers to refuse to carry it, but the book still managed to become a number-one Wall Street Journal bestseller.

Next was his take on cooking, with 2012's

Ferriss learned cooking techniques from Michelin-star-winning chef Joshua Skenes.Tim Ferriss/Flickr

Ferriss said that the energy he put into the book — it’s a giant one, and is loaded with photos and graphics — combined with the unexpected distribution challenges burned him out. He decided to take a break from writing, aside from publishing posts on his popular blog.

In 2013, HLN gave Ferriss a TV show, “The Tim Ferriss Experiment,” in which experts would teach him the basics of their craft, whether it was surfing or rally car racing. The show was part of a short-lived Turner Broadcasting initiative, and only a couple of the episodes aired on television.

In 2013, HLN gave Ferriss a TV show,

“The Tim Ferriss Experiment”

Ferriss was devastated when the show ended, but eventually decided he would find a way to get his product out there, the same way he did with his last book.

In 2015, he finally won the digital rights to all 13 episodes of the show and distributed them on iTunes, where they topped the most-downloaded chart.

After book burnout and a failed show, Ferriss decided to bide his time with a podcast, which he said he never intended to be more than a fun, temporary side project. His longform interviews about careers and craft took off, and since launching in 2014, “The Tim Ferriss Show” has had more than 200 million downloads.

The podcast is a perfect encapsulation of Ferriss’ brand.

As he puts it: “I specialize in pattern recognition and accelerated learning. So taking a subject that seems very complex or that can be presented in a very complex way, and distilling it down into the fewest number of moving pieces that really matter.”

Ferriss started a new chapter in his life in 2017 when he moved from Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas. He said that he’s found the Bay Area to be trapped in groupthink, having largely grown out of the love for experimentation that drove him there in the first place.

Ferriss started a new chapter in his life in 2017 when he moved from Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas. He said that he's found the Bay Area to be trapped in groupthink, having largely grown out of the love for experimentation that drove him there in the first place.

Julia Robinson/Reuters

This year, in general, has been a big one for Ferriss. He turned 40, “The 4-Hour Workweek” turned 10, and he came to terms with his depression in a public way. He said that he’s reached a degree of inner peace and is not chasing one project after another with no aim.

This year, in general, has been a big one for Ferriss. He turned 40,

Andrew “Drew” Kelly

“I’m very comfortable being 40,” Ferriss said. “But as a thought exercise, you know, I asked myself, if this is the halfway point, if we’re just looking at the actuarial tables, it’s like, all right, if I’m at 50%, right, I’m halfway through this race called life, and when I hit the finish line, you’re dead at 80, how might I want to rethink trajectory?”

“How might I want to rethink over-planning versus under-planning? Even though I’m trying to improve my relationships with others, are they dependent on my relationship with myself?” he said. “If so, how should I even conceptualize improving that, right? If it’s never been part of my repertoire?”

As he figures out answers to these questions, he explained, he’s going to take his audience along for the ride.

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